A decided “change in tone” over the last few weeks has brought Ottawa closer than ever to reaching a deal that would end a standoff between premiers and the federal government over health-care funding, says Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa Friday, Duclos said he believes an agreement could come in the weeks ahead that would see more funding flow to the provinces for health care in exchange for provinces and territories agreeing to a number of key conditions aimed at improving conditions for health workers, access to care for patients and the sharing of data.
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Duclos stressed this will be a long-term deal with funding commitments aimed at strengthening Canada’s struggling health system.
“I’m very optimistic… there’s been a change of tone and a change of direction in the last few weeks,” Duclos said in French of the negotiations with the provinces.
This shift in talks happened at the beginning of the new year, Duclos said – just a few weeks after all 13 of Canada’s premiers jointly threw down the gauntlet, demanding a meeting with the prime minister to hammer out a deal to increase health funding with no strings attached.
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“We have seen a shift towards a focus on what matters to Canadians, which are results – results for the patients and health-care workers. That’s what people want and that’s what I believe the premiers also want now,” Duclos said Friday.
The premiers have been calling for a $28-billion increase to the Canada Health Transfer, which they say will bring the federal contribution toward health costs to 35 per cent from 22 per cent currently.
Federal officials have disputed these figures, saying they do not represent the full scope of Ottawa’s total investment in health care, as tax points to provinces and other specific bilateral deals on mental health and home care are not being factored into the provinces’ calculations.
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Still, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he’s willing to increase federal health transfers, but only if they agree to a set of shared priorities that would see “tangible results” for Canadians.
On Friday, Duclos said the five fundamental priorities for which Ottawa wants provincial buy-in include: reducing backlogs and supporting health workers, enhancing access to family medicine, improving mental health services, helping Canadians age with dignity and agreements to modernize and share health data.
Until now, the premiers have indicated they will only talk dollars and cents when it comes to these negotiations with Ottawa.
Last month, the premiers directed their health ministers not to disclose positive progress that had been made behind closed doors during a meeting of all provincial, territorial and federal health ministers in Vancouver in early December, Duclos, who took part in these meetings, told Global News in an interview last month.
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As this political standoff was playing out, front-line health-care workers have been pleading for more resources amid chronic staffing shortages and a nationwide shortage of family doctors that has forced more Canadians to seek care in emergency departments.
These staffing issues left many health systems flat-footed when a trifecta of respiratory illnesses – influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19 – surged all at once through the fall.
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Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Wednesday he is willing to accept some strings from the federal government if they give the province more health-care funding.
“There always has to be accountability,” Ford told reporters in Toronto. “So that’s the least of our issues. Do we want a little bit of flexibility? Yeah, and I think they’re willing to do that.”
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Quebec Premier Francois Legault has been particularly outspoken about not accepting any conditions on health-care funding.
But he told reporters Wednesday that Quebec and Ontario are both ready to share data on their health-care systems with the Trudeau government.
However, Ford said Friday the provinces are united in their stance that they won’t be signing individual deals on health-care funding with the federal government.
“It’s not going to be a one-off for Ontario, another for someone else,” he said. “We’ve all agreed, all the premiers, we all have to work together and stay united and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
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Duclos would not say Friday whether the increased funding Ottawa has promised will meet the 35 per cent threshold the provinces have been seeking.
He also sidestepped questions about whether any further conditions would be placed on this funding to prevent provinces from using it to pay for privatized health services in the wake of Ontario’s plans to spend millions on moving thousands of health procedures to private clinics.
He did, however, note that any province or territory that does not meet its obligations under the Canada Health Act can face financial penalties. Those obligations include a stipulation that all Canadians have equitable health-care access.
“There are penalties that can be imposed, that have been imposed, that will be imposed, probably, in the future when those obligations are not upheld and by provinces and territories,” Duclos said.
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“But my understanding, based on the recent conversations, is that those obligations are well understood and will be upheld by whatever changes to the system that my colleagues in the provinces and territories will want to make.”
In the meantime, Duclos said he is “looking forward to significant and positive developments in the weeks ahead” after many months of challenging negotiations with the provinces.
“The conversation is stronger now than it used to be just a few weeks and certainly a few months ago,” Duclos said. “That’s great news and I’m quite optimistic it’s going to continue to move in the right direction.”
— with files from The Canadian Press
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